Book Review: The War within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship During the Civil War

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by Thomas J. Goss

Lawrence, Ks.: University Press of Kansas, 2003. Pp. xx, 300. Tables, notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN:0-7006-1263-7

In The War within the Union High Command the author address how the nation’s “Dual Military Tradition,” its long reliance on the combination of citizen-soldiers and professionals, affected the conduct of the Civil War. We are all familiar with the distinction between the “political generals” and the “professional generals” in the war, with scholarship traditionally coming down hard on the former and praising the latter. Goss takes a different view, pointing out firstly that quite a number of the “professional generals” – McClellan, Halleck, Pope, Buell, Frémont, etc. – proved wanting, while some of the “political generals – Logan, Wadsworth, etc.– were by no means inept. But he goes beyond that, to argue for an expanded definition of generalship in the war, one rooted in the Clauswitzian concept of war as an extension of politics.

The Union needed not only commanders who could win in the field, but also commanders who could inspire popular support for the war, a fact recognized by such professionals as U.S. Grant himself. The “political generals” could bring men into the ranks and solidify regional support for the struggle, and particularly Democratic support, something the professionals could not do, since few of them had any influence – or image – outside the army. While they sometimes failed on the battlefield, the political generals succeeded in keeping popular support for the fight.

A further aspect of the problem facing Lincoln was that there just weren’t enough professional soldiers to command the enormous armies that the war engendered. And in any case early in the war the professionals demonstrated little more capability than did the amateurs. As the war went on, and capable professional soldiers came to the attention of the public, Lincoln was gradually able to dispense with the political generals, or at least those who had proven less than capable on the battlefield.

Reviewer: Albert A. Nofi   


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